English Literature: Robert Frost - An Analysis of Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost - An Analysis of Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
This video presents an analysis of Robert Frost's poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. This page is intended to give additional details of the analysis that are not contained in the video. It is meant to cover the extra details.
As I have explained the basic themes of the poem in the video, I will concentrate here on the symbolism. First, note the main symbol of the poem is the woods. It is mentioned several times and is the dominant symbol of the poem. This main usage is a reference to the book that was written by the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, Walden, which was actually entitled Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
Walden was Thoreau's account of going to the woods and living apart from everything in modern life--getting away from it all, much as the narrator does in the poem. The book inspired many others to follow his example.
With Frost's poem, several things from Walden make there way into the poem. Thoreau goes on at length about poets going to look at other people's land, like the narrator. Other objects make their appearence too--straight from Thoreau's chapter titles: The Village, The Ponds, and The Pond in Winter. So the woods, the village, and winter come straight out of Thoreau, the frozen Walden Pond becomes a frozen lake. Nevertheless, the symbols are clear, and Thoreau even makes his departure from Walden Pond in a similar spirit to that of the narrator:
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.
We should understand the title of Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a gentle mocking of Thoreau's "Life in the Woods." Here, Frost reduces the "life" to a mere "evening." For someone like Frost, Thoreau's brief stay in the woods seems entirely insignificant.
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
The structure of the rhyme scheme of the poem comes straight from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám that was translated by Edward FitzGerald in 1859. If you are wondering if this was intentional, it most certainly was. Frost was well-aware of the poem and even wrote a poem entitled The Rubaiyat of Carl Burwell.
So, the natural question is "Why did Frost use this rhyme scheme and what did he mean by it?" We already noted, in the video, that the interlocking structure created the chain of motion and symbolized the drawing out of the narrator. Interlocking the verses was Frost's invention. However, the AABA structure for each verse came from The Rubáiyát. So, why did Frost choose that?
The Rubaiyat was a Persian poem. Frost uses it as an example of the idolization of Asia that was common among intellectuals of the time. In Walden, Thoreau writes the following about the Bhagavad Gita:
"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions."
This pretentiousness of Thoreau in this passage was common among the intellectuals who idolized Asia. Frost satirized that movement more directly in this poem An Importer, which begins
Mrs. Someone's been to Asia,
What she brought back would amaze ye.
The poem, An Importer, goes on to mock the type phony elevation of Asia over America that Thoreau engages in the above passage. Frost, being a more down-to-earth poet, must have bristled at such pretentiousness. Moreover, despite some occasional mild criticisms of America, Frost clearly admired America and its founders.
The horse in the poem represents the will. As Frost states it in his play A Masque of Reason:
We disparage, reason.
But all the time It's what we're most concerned with.
There's will as motor and there's will as brakes
Reason is, I suppose, the steeling gear
The will as brakes can't stop the will as motor
For very long. We're plaInly made to go
This is a reference to the charioteer allegory that Plato developed in his dialogue Phaedrus. In it, the two horses that represent the two forces of the human will that the human soul, as the charioteer, drives. According to Frost, the will to go on always overcomes the will as brakes, just as it does in the poem. The horse shakes his harness bells to tell the narrator to go. At the end, the narrator in Frost's poem heeds the horse's drive to go on.
Frost is saying something here. The driver is following the horse, rather than leading the horse. The driver, as Transcendentalist, heeds a lower, animalistic drive. He is driven by instinct, rather than intellect.
The Woods and the Lake
The woods and the lake are two objects that the narrator stands between. There are perhaps multiple meanings to these two items. On the one hand, the woods are dark, while the lake is light. Thus they represent good and evil. Frost criticized the transcendental movement for the naive belief that everything is good. Edgar Allen Poe made a similar observation in his satiric story about transcendentalism called Never Bet the Devil Your Head. Frost published an essay entitled On Emerson in which he labeled the transcendentalist's views as monism, having a belief only in good, as opposed to the correct view of dualism, which implies both good and evil. He likens the two views to a circle and oval respectively, having one or two centers: Good only or both Good and Evil.
Alternatively, there is a hint of what the woods and lake might be in the poem Neither Out Far Nor In Deep. In that poem, the people ignore the land and stare at the sea. The land is like the woods and the sea is like the the frozen lake. The woods represent deep, philosophical subjects that are accessible to humans, while the sea represents the infinite and incomprehensible. The transcendentalists ignore the things that they could understand in favor of that which is hopelessly beyond their grasp. In Stopping by Woods, Frost doesn't say much about the lake, but he does imply that the narrator has no time for the woods: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep ..."